Catania, Taormina, Mt Etna–Oh My!

Okay, be honest.  Before the G7 meeting, had you ever heard of Taormina?  If I had, it didn’t register, until we booked this trip.

But before heading to Taormina, we still had lots to see and do in Catania.  I’ll tell ya, I was totally unprepared for how much I enjoyed Catania.  What a pleasant surprise.  It was easy to get around, with lots to see, and of course,  with an abundance of great restaurants.

The city was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC, and as with other areas in their empire, the Romans left their mark, which the city has wisely preserved.

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I love the way the old and modern structures coexist.  This amphitheater lies beneath the modern city

Yes,  Catania has the requisite number of churches, fountains and statues.  It also has lots of interesting streets,  like this one.  It isn’t immediately apparent, but as you climb all those stairs,   P1010550

you are rewarded with views like this.    P1180568

As one would expect of a city smack dab on the ocean, Catania’s fish market was HUGE, as were its products.  Check out that swordfish.  P1010572

Coming from coastal Massachusetts, however, this girl wasn’t all that impressed.

I DID get excited about the market’s fruit, though, especially those cherries.  I don’t know who was more excited about my purchase–him or me?  To show his appreciation,  he gave me a slice of the most delicious cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.   Fresh, delicious fruit… aah, that’s what I call quality of life!P1180580

But I didn’t fill up on cherries.  Good thing because we had yet another incredible lunch at a little outdoor cafe off of the main square, across from the cathedral.  You’d think by now I would remember to write the cafe’s name down or take a picture of the menu, but I did neither.  Sorry, future visitors to Catania.  I believe it was on the corner, facing the elephant’s behind, where the tan umbrellas are.

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On to Taormina, where security was tight.  Good thing our group was in great shape, because we had to walk quite a distance.  Bus access into the town and to the amphitheater was limited, even though the leaders would not be arriving for another week.

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Notice the two different uniforms of the military/security people in this photo.  I think every country must have sent their own people.  There were LOTS more milling about!

The amphitheater was the perfect spot for a group photo.  And what a group we were! All seasoned travelers, everyone was considerate, friendly and easy to be with.  Of course I had my favorites (and they know who they are), but I would be thrilled to see any of them on a future trip.

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Great traveling companions!  Back row: Tom, Maxine, Jane, Sharon, Ann,  Carol. (Ann should have been in the front!)  Middle row: Sue, Sue, Lavonne, Al, Joel and Henry  Front row: Mike, me, Daniel (way in front), Shirley and Owen.

The Greek Amphitheater is still used for outdoor concerts, but those white plastic chairs are not normally in place.  People usually sit on the stone steps, bleachers or the grassy sections.  The plastic seats were set up for the following week’s G-7 conference.

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The view from the site is unforgettable.  See that cloud of smoke in the distance?  That’s Mount Etna.

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And that’s where we were headed on our last day in Catania.  But first, one last shot of Taormina.  Yes, the streets in the city are a bit steep, but none of our group needed a golf cart to get around.  (I’m just sayin’…)

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Okay, so I’ll admit it.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hike on an active volcano.  Of course, this being OAT, we were accompanied by Marco, our expert local guide who made sure we were safe at all times.  Marco came equipped wth visual aids, walking sticks and hard hats!P1010643

We learned our group was unique, in that EVERYONE made the hike and descended into the lava tubes.  Apparently this was a first for Marco.  He said on all his other tours a couple of people waited at the base and didn’t take part in all the activities.  Yay us!

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Here’s one of our guide, Daniel’s, photos.  As you can see from our clothing (and my hat) It was cold and windy on the volcano.  I was glad I’d packed my fleece!

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That’s not OUR group in the distance.  I wasn’t that brave (foolhardy) to stay behind to get that shot!  In fact, WE were up higher than they, as you can see from the angle of my shot.

So why did we need hard hats?  Well, when you climbed down into a lava tube, it’s a good idea to protect your head and turn your head lamp on.

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Yet another one of Daniel’s photos–the group inside the lava tube.

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If you think this blog post was a whirlwind, you’d be right. And that’s how it felt to be on the trip.  A very nice, interesting, FUN whirlwind.  We definitely got a lot for our money!

We said good-bye to our new friends at that night’s farewell dinner.

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Once again, thank you Daniel!

 

Most were headed home, but very early the following morning (5 AM),  Mike, Owen, Shirley and I started our Malta adventure, which I’ll be posting about next.

Eureka, We Found Syracusa!

For the last three days of our OAT tour, we were based in Catania.  Enroute, we stopped in Syracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes.  Remember him?  He’s the guy in the bathtub, who shouted “eureka” when he discovered something of great importance?  I don’t remember what he discovered, but I sure did like his word choice.

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If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering why he’s holding a mirror, instead of sitting in a bathtub, like a Cialis commercial.  Well, there are a couple of stories:  The original legend was that Archimedes developed a parabolic mirror that captured the sun’s rays and then directed them toward the invaders’ wooden ships, setting  them ablaze.  Valeria, our local guide, said it was more likely that the mirror was indeed used to capture the sun’s rays, but was probably more effective temporarily blinding the enemy.  You are free to pick whichever version you prefer.   Archimedes also invented a crane with a metal hook that could pull a ship out of the water, known as “Archimedes Claw”.   Now THAT would have made one hell of a statue!

We didn’t spend much time in Syracuse, instead moving to the fortress island of Ortigia, another lovely Sicilian town just packed with Greek and Roman ruins, Medieval Norman structures, and Baroque buildings, plus great restaurants and lovely boutiques.  We weren’t there long enough!

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Typical street in Ortigia.  Lots of pedestrian only walkways.

We made a stop by the Fountain of Arethusa.  You’ve all seen fountains before, so I decided to share a photo of this plaque instead.  Don’t you just love it when there is an English translation?  I hope it comes through large enough for you to read it!

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Arethusa was one “wiry” nymph who didn’t rejoice in the “gifts of her body”.  What a great translation!

After lunch we took a boat ride around Ortigia Bay.  (This photo is courtesy of sweet Daniel, our guide, who shared the photos he’d been taking of us during the entire trip.)See that bridge?  Wonder how we were able to fit under it?  P1180508

Don’t worry.  I’m going to show you…

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Our captain instructed us all to scrunch down, then the awning was lowered.  Okay, so it isn’t the best photo I’ve ever taken, but I’ll bet got the idea!

Something else to wonder.  How do people on boats get take-out delivered?  Wonder no more, because once again, I’m going to show you.

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Yes indeed.  That IS a pizza being lowered.

Our day wasn’t over.  We had one more stop before we checked into the hotel.  The World War II Museum commemorated the allies landing in Sicily.   My favorite part of the museum was entering the replica of a Sicilian town, hearing the air raid sirens go off, piling in to the bomb shelter (which shook as the “bombs” went off) then exiting to see the devastation that took place.

There was lots more to see, but I decided to share this poster with the folks back home.

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Lucky Luciano was sprung from a US prison so that he could communicate with his Sicilian Cosa Nostra connections to ensure that the US knew exactly where to land.   As you can imagine, this was somewhat controversial, especially because some claim the US support of the Cosa Nostra leaders only strengthened their hold on the region after the war ended.

After settling in to the Katane Palace Hotel, Daniel took us for a quick tour, pointing out Catania’s version of “Restaurant Row”, where we had a wonderful dinner.

The perfect ending to a fantastic first day in Catania.

 

 

Oh, To Be Rich in Ancient Sicily! 

No one knows for sure who lived in the Villa Romana del Casale.  Some think it might have been the country home of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius; others theorize a provincial governor lived and conducted administrative duties here.

It was constructed in the middle of the 4th century AD, and owes its remarkable preservation to the mudslide that covered the villa in the 12th century.  The building remained hidden until the 1950’s excavations.

Katya, our local expert, explained that we were going to view some of the finest examples of Roman mosaics in all of Europe, with scenes ranging from Homeric escapades to depictions of daily life, at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Katya was excellent, and that was true of all the local guides on our trip.  We learned that our main guide, Daniel, had a choice of 4 or 5 different local guides for each site, and I have to say, he chose very well. Katya was interesting and so informative, a delight to listen to.

We began our tour by the aqueduct, which was the source of water for the baths–starting with the hot bath, and ending with the frigidarium, the cold bath.

The slaves kept the fires going in these ovens so that the baths were at the proper temperature.
I wasn’t taking notes, so don’t hold me to it, but I THINK this was the frigidarium.  Or it was something else.  Whatever.  It was impressive.


The main attraction of the villa is the floor mosaics, and they are absolutely magnificent.

Probably the most famous room, the 10  maidens are exercising, wearing the ancient version of bikinis.  And look, someone appears to have won the swimsuit competition, earning her a crown and a palm leaf to wave around.


Not quite so famous, but certainly as intriguing were these: one  example  of the many scenes of a hunt.

This woman’s clothing indicates she was from the eastern empire, possibly Muslim.  There is another mosaic of a similarly attired woman, being carried off by soldiers.   It isn’t hard to imagine what that mosaic was illustrating.

No commentary necessary for this one.


I particularly liked the depiction of the theater.  Looks like the legend of the Cyclops was being featured.

Those white squares on the mosaic–I thought someone had been littering, but no.  They were placed there intentionally to absorb moisture.


Here’s a close up of Cyclops.  I really DID like that mosaic!  Isn’t it amazing what the craftsmen were able to do with little colored stones?

One last look at the countryside and we’ll be on our way.  Our timing was fantastic.  We were leaving, just as hoards of tourists were arriving!